This is one of those movies you stumble across almost by accident, love it, and then can't convince enough people to watch it. I watched it based solely because I was a Daniel Craig fan, and shame on me, the DVD box looked cool. I've seen it called all kinds of things, a Guy Ritchie knock-off especially, but it's one of those rare great movies that works almost in spite of itself. Based off a novel by J.J. Connolly, Layer Cake has too many characters, more style than substance often enough, and twists and turns so much it took me a couple viewings to piece everything together for sure. All that out of the way, I love this movie. I'll explain later.
A high-end drug distributor, a man known only as XXXX (Craig) has quickly risen through the ranks of the very stylish but still cutthroat underworld. In fact, he's done so well with his crew of chemists, bodyguards and distributors, that he's calling it quits at the age of 30 and going into early retirement. Not so fast, his boss (Kenneth Cranham) has two more jobs for him, and then he'll let him walk away. First, a shipment of 1 million ecstasy pills is on the market, and they're just sitting there for the taking. Two, the daughter of an old friend of the boss is missing, and she must be found before something happens to her. Completely backed into a corner unless he wants to risk a bullet in his head, X takes both jobs in his effort to leave the business cleanly. But as he so well knows, nothing comes easy, and nothing here goes as planned.
The basic idea of the last job is nothing new here as X tries to pull off these last two jobs. The novel is a great jumping off point -- even if the ending sucks in the book -- and director Matthew Vaughn runs with the idea. The movie has the action style of a Bourne movie, the look of a glossy British crime thriller, the dark humor of a Scorsese gangster flick, and the twists and turns you'd expect from a Shyamalan movie. What's so odd is that all these vastly different pieces click together and work so smoothly. It's stylish without overdoing it, violent without being gratuitous, funny without pandering for laughs, and keeping you on your toes without trying to straight out confuse you. A winner on all accounts.
As I mentioned earlier, Craig is a huge bright spot here, showing a different side as an actor. He hadn't yet done a Bond film so he's not in crazy, ridiculous physical shape here. He's on the thin side which is important because he isn't this superhero dealer. X explains, "He's just a business man" and a highly intelligent one at that. Nothing about these two jobs is as simple as they seem, and he's got to figure everything out before it's too late. X is smooth, smart and very capable of handling himself...although if the chance arises he'll hire someone who is also capable of handling themselves. His narration is spot-on, especially in the movie's opening (watch HERE) and sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie. The tone is going to be cynical with its dark look at the criminal underworld and all its shady dealings. As a front man for this movie, Craig was a perfect choice.
Don't get confused though and think this is just Daniel Craig's movie because the cast has so much more to offer. Where to start, where to start? Vaughn assembles this great list of British actors to play this long list of eclectic, often rather eccentric characters. Here's just some, starting with George Harris as Morty, X's security with a checkered past, with Tom Hardy and Tamer Hassan as X's crew. Cranham is Jimmy Price, X's shady boss who pawns off much of his work on Colm Meaney's Gene, X's link to Jimmy. Sienna Miller is Tammie, a club girl who X instantly feels a connection too. Miller is sexy as hell, check here out HERE. Michael Gambon is Eddie Temple, Jimmy's old friend and current rival, ready to throw X for a loop in his perfect plan. Then there's Dexter Fletcher, Steve John Shepard, Stephen Walters, and Louis Emerick, all recognizable faces if you don't know their names in great supporting parts that requires barely more than a scene or two to establish who they are and what they're up to.
What's funny as I write this is that the list previously mentioned is only the key characters. Yeah, there's more characters that bounce in and out as needed. Almost every single one of the above characters mentioned is so well-written that they could all get their own movie. So throw all these individuals in one movie -- with surprising amounts of background -- and you've got a gem. Harris' Morty and Meaney's Gene stand out from the rest, two quick flashbacks revealing all you need to know about them. With X, Morty, Gene and the crew, there is a perfect chemistry, a relationship formed from men having worked together in difficult, strenuous situations and bonding through it. A great scene between Craig, Harris and Meaney has them talking about strategy, what their next move is as the walls start closing in on them. It reminded me of a scene that Peckinpah would have used in The Wild Bunch, Scorsese in Goodfellas, John Sturges in The Magnificent Seven. Would it have been great to see a 4-hour version where every single character gets his chance to shine? Sure, absolutely, but Vaughn somehow finds a way to weave all these people together and make it work. Kudos to you, Mr. Vaughn.
What else is there to say? I love this movie, and try to watch it at least once a year. It's one of those hidden gems you're beyond happy you stumbled upon. Stylish, funny, entertaining with some gunplay, some sex, and a story that will keep you guessing right until the end. Make sure to watch all the way until the credits because the ending is a whopper of a surprise. It says it all in a movie that doesn't need to deliver a message but does anyway, a good one on the irony scale. For all the epic moves and detailed planning, it can be the smallest detail that ends up making the biggest impact.
Layer Cake <---trailer (2004): ****/****